Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae

Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae receiving the head of Cyrus. Embroidered picture, England, mid-17th century. Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae receiving the head of Cyrus. Embroidered picture, England, mid-17th century. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, acc. no. T.14-1971.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses an embroidered picture that shows a scene from the classical story of Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae, namely the moment that she receives the head of Cyrus, the king of the Persians. The embroidery is worked on cream satin and carried out with various forms of metal thread and with many shades and colours of silk thread. There is also some shading with water colour.

The story of Tomyris is first and most elaborately told by the mid-fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus. He tells that Cyrus, the first king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, who died c. 530 BC, was killed and beheaded on the orders of Tomyris, the Queen of the Massagetae, a Scythian/Saka ethnic group from east of the Caspian Sea. Other Classical accounts however tell that Cyrus died peacefully in his bed. His tomb can still be visited at Pasargadae, in the southwest of modern Iran.

The text underneath the embroidery reads: Satia te sanguine quem semper sitisti (Sate thyself on the blood for which thou hast always thirsted). This text refers to Herodotus' story, in which Tomyris addresses Cyrus' head, kept in a wine bag filled with blood. 

SC48846The story was also illustrated by other artists, including Francesco Allegrini (1587-1663), Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Actually, the embroidery appears to be based on a painting by Rubens (see illustration). See also an engraving by François Ragot (1638-1670).

'Head of Cyrus brought to Tomyris', painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), c.AD 1622. Now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA (acc. no. 41.40; click here for online catalogue).

Stitches that were used for the embroidered picture include the flame stitch, long and short stitch, raised overcast stitch, satin stitch, speckling stitch, split stitch, and stem stitch. Other decorative techniques include French knots, seed pearls and metal ornaments. All the flesh and the sky are outlined in split and stem stitches and any shading effects are achieved with water colour.

The complete picture measures 56 x 46 cm.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 20th December 2016).


Last modified on Wednesday, 24 May 2017 11:22